Interview Strategies for Reporters

By Jessi Pierce

06/09/16

When I joined Fortune as a reporter many years ago, one of the first things I discovered was that I wasn’t going to be doing any writing. That job was reserved for folks with the title “associate editor.” (They, in turn, didn’t do any editing, just writing. I know—confusing. But that’s how it was back then.) As a reporter, my job was to accompany the writer to interviews, take detailed notes, transcribe those interviews, and then fact-check the entire article through every edit and iteration.

The process was long and slow (sometimes agonizingly so), but one of the most valuable skills I learned long the way was how to be a good interviewer. Before I was promoted to the writing staff myself, I must have sat through hundreds of interviews with dozens of different Fortune writers. I quickly learned which ones were really good at asking questions and which ones were just plain awful. And even though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was developing my own interviewing skills, making mental notes of which methods, strategies, and styles I liked, and which ones I knew to avoid. (Bad interview technique No. 1: Don’t mumble. I played back the recording of one interview conducted by a fairly seasoned writer and realized the CEO had asked him no fewer than nine times to repeat the question because he couldn’t make out what the writer was asking him. Neither could I.) What follows below are some of the strategies I’ve used over the years to conduct a successful and thorough interview:

Do Your Homework
It doesn’t matter whether you’re interviewing a CEO or a local town council member: be prepared. Research your subject, take notes on what you find, and use a variety of sources. I remember doing background research on a tech company and saw a brief mention of the CEO’s interest in fly fishing. I delved a little further and found a long article he had written on the topic. I didn’t lead my interview with that topic, but we did get around to it and when the interview ended he smiled and said, “Wow, you really do your homework.”

Write Down Questions
When I’m researching a subject in preparation for an interview, I write down dozens and dozens of questions. Anything that comes to mind, I scribble down on white, lined paper, no matter how silly or superficial it seems. Then I read through everything and start to edit. I condense, eliminate, and order the questions according to how I want the interview to start. The questions that make the cut then get hand-written onto large, lined index cards. I always try to have no more than three or four cards—anything more gets unwieldy and chances are you’ll run out of time before getting through all of them. By the time the interview rolls around I’m so familiar with the questions I hardly need to look at them, but I still like having the index cards in my hand. It gives me a chance to glance down at them and pause the interview if I sense we need a little break, and it gives the subject a chance to take a breather while I do so.


Don’t Make a Speech
One of the best interviewers I witnessed at Fortune was the writer who covered the auto industry. He had a way of asking questions without a lot of fanfare or set-up. He wasn’t overly blunt or humorless; he just knew how to get to the heart of a question and ask it. The bottom line is this: Don’t use 100 words when 25 will do. The subject isn’t interested in hearing you spew out your knowledge of her company or an issue before you get around to asking your question. That intelligence should shine through in the kinds of questions you ask—not how long it takes you to get to the point.

One Question at a Time
And speaking of questions, ask one at a time. I’ve heard reporters ask two- and three-part questions in an interview and all I can say is good luck in getting an answer to any of them. Most people naturally go off on tangents when they speak and to expect your source to keep track of your multi-part queries is foolish. If a question is important enough to ask, ask it and then wait for the answer.

Don’t Be Afraid of Silence
One of the things it took me the longest time to get comfortable with is silence in an interview. I always felt it was my job to keep the interview humming along. But sometimes you have to ask tough, personal questions that your subject isn’t thrilled about answering. If they pause and don’t speak right away, don’t rush in to fill the silence. It may feel awkward at first, but that’s okay. With practice, you’ll get used to it. Some of the best responses I’ve ever gotten in an interview came after someone was permitted to gather their thoughts for a moment before speaking. The ability to sit there, calmly, in silence shows that you’re controlling the pace and tempo of the interview. And contrary to what you might think, it proves to your source that you value their comments enough to wait to hear what they have to say.